Critical Media and Communication Studies Today: A Conversation between Dwayne Winseck and Christian Fuchs. Part 4
Dwayne Winseck: Christian, as always I hope that you’re well.
Wow, you’ve certainly put a lot out there for consideration. Let me do my best to respond to some of what you’ve said about ideology, alienation and Garnham’s critique of what he sees as the critical marxian political economy of communication school.
First of all I need to clarify that I have not criticized Smythe for being too reductionist but actually praised him for his point that traditional communication and media studies’ focus on ideology, texts and effects distracted us from two fundamental elements that help to constitute a critical materialist (Marxist or otherwise) political economy of media and communication: first, the economic importance of media industries and specific firms in their own right and, second, through the provision of communication infrastructure, news and information flows, and advertising that serve as central coordinating mechanisms in the capitalist economy as a whole. So, the critique here is that so-called ideology critique has too often served – past and present – to divert our attention from these economics realities.
Based on this, I’m afraid that I have to disagree with the example that you offer using social media in an attempt to illustrate why ideology is as important as economic considerations to a political economy approach. You say that a “techno-deterministic techno-optimistic ideology” has been necessary to turn social media into a new site of capital investment and accumulation, in other words, to turn things like Facebook, Twitter, Flikr, LinkedIn, etc. into hot new markets and sites for investment. Given that, you say that our task is as much to understand and critique this ideology as it is to focus on economic arrangements and media capital accumulation models?
I do not agree that ideology has been essential to the emergence of social media as significant new markets and sources of financial investment. Indeed, the notion that techno-optimistic ideology serves as the handmaiden of capitalism and is behind speculative booms followed by, first, the dot.com crisis and then the Global Financial Crisis is misguided in my view. I think that several of our colleagues have done extremely impressive work that helps shed light on how ideas, knowledge circulation and, if you will, a more modest conception of ideology that goes by some other name works. I have in mind the work of Peter Thompson, Aeron Davis, Wayne Hope and Marc-Andre Pigeon.
Each of them have focused closely on knowledge flows and the role of very specialized, high end financial market and business news services and databases among a trilogy of groups – institutional and high end financial investors/traders/analysts, corporate insiders and financial journalists. In its most basic of outlines, knowledge and data flows among the first two groups far more quickly before it ever reaches mass media channels such as CNNfn, MSNBC, Wall Street Journal, Your Hometown Daily News Outlet, etc. Financial journalists play the role of switching node here, but the differences in who is speaking to whom, the narrow vs mass audience, and vast differences in temporality (ie. insiders get stuff in milliseconds and zero time delay and trades are executed in a flash) mean that it is what is happening inside the elite groups and the narrow conventions that they share and subscribe too rather than techno-optimistic hyperbole/ideology that gets attached to all new media.
Instead of ideology, then, I think we need to pay attention to specialized, elite knowledge and channels of communication, on the one hand. The rhetoric, language, myths and uses of media and ICTs are important in their own right, and are structured by class, primarily greasing the slide of new media from novelty to part of the furniture. This is similar to the Abercrombie, Hill and Turner critique of the ‘dominant ideology’ thesis in 1980. It is not the ideology is irrelevant, but rather that its grip is mostly present among elites and diffuse across other social classes as a whole (a point that C. Wright Mills also made). Much more could be said along these lines, but my basic point is that vast flows of capital investment into media doesn’t involve ideology but rather ‘fast circuits’ of data and knowledge production, which, from analysts and consultants of the dot.com era (analysts/snake-oil sales reps, H. Blodget, M. Meeker, etc.) and standards and rating agencies (Fitch, Standard and Poor, Moodys), have systematically torqued their data and sold investors (and the political class) a bill of goods that later turned out to be little more than Ponzi-like schemes.
To move on to the points you made about social totality, I think we may be closer on this than might initially appear. I think that the ambition of trying to make the connections between media and ICTs and capitalist modernity as a whole is one that gives political economy some of its impressive reach and allows it to provide compelling accounts of our times, sometimes. I agree with you that the Culturalist Turn has resulted in simplistic/cultural reductionistic analyses that neglect class and the economy, and lead to fragmented portraits of the contemporary condition that actually recursively feed into, and reproduce, the fragmentary character of contemporary societies that are our objects/subjects of study to begin with.
Again though, I think the thrust of my work is more towards, lets say, a better sense of the interplay between top-down macro-level, deductive approaches that aim to synthesize complexity into a portrait of the social totality based on propositions derived from Marx versus a bottom-up examination of what Botanski calls ‘situations’, or ‘contexts of action’, where emergent properties and how people actually think, act and so on arises out of empirical observation. Discovering such emergent properties through empirical observation means that you have to bracket aside, at least for the moment, your own politics and agendas, lest you superimpose that on the conditions and ‘subjects’ (people) at hand.
Time and again I’ve discovered this to be true when I observe what people do with the media/Internet, or pay close attention to what others who study such things have to say. That is, I’ll discover that people actually employ elaborate, even if unreflective, practices that tell us about how they feel about others with whom they communicate, privacy and surveillance, etc. They can tell you about such experiences too, reflexively. The expressions that emerge from what people are actually doing often clash with the reigning practices and strategies of Facebook, ISPs, Google, etc., as one can see in their Acceptable User Agreements/Policies, etc. The fact that you spend a lot of time looking at these things all the time in your work is one, among many things, that has impressed me so much with your work.
So, key point on this? We need to focus more on textured interplay between macro and micro level analysis, theoretico-deductive approaches versus inductive but still theory-grounded empirical observation. There are too many ungrounded analyses that regurgitate politico-theoretical propositions in light of each new round of communications media (Internet, web 2.0, etc.) as if that constitutes analysis.
Let me turn, quickly because this is becoming far too long, to some points you raise about Garnham. First, you say that you want to insist on a “Critique of the Political Economy of X” or “the Critical Political Economy of X”, and do not personally want to be associated with Neoliberal Political Economy of X.
While I want to consider what I do as fitting within the ‘critique of the political economy of communication’, I do not have the same qualms as you do with respect to other strands of political economy on offer. I put this out in more elaborate form in a long introductory essay to our new edited collection to which you contributed, The Political Economies of Media, which just came out last month.
The key point that Garnham is making, it seems to me, is that critical Marxist political economists have spent more time denouncing markets and commercialization than studying how they actually work, are structured, change over time, etc. Of course, there are exceptions to this, and your work is among such exceptions. However, the rule remains . . . .
One thing that I’ve done recently is joined with Eli Noam, a Professor of Finance and Economics at Columbia University, and also an expert from within the mainstream of economics in all aspects of telecom, media and Internet economics. He’s also recently published the authoritative Media Ownership and Concentration in America (2009). I’ve learned a great deal from the work that I’ve done with him on the International Media Concentration Research Project. I’ve produced reams of evidence on all manner of the telecom-media-Internet industries in Canada covering the past 25 years as part of this project. By simply gathering, organizing and trying to make sense of this data, from the bottom, over such a long span of time, have allowed things aplenty to emerge that I could not have anticipated or derived from propositions drawn from Marxist political economy.
I can’t go any further here into this, but on this point let me just say that there are others who you and I also know well and I think respect as heterodox, if not Marxist political economists, such as Paschal Preston, Guillermo Mastrini and Martin Becerra. They are also part of this project. Even Noam and Robert McChesney, from what I understand, are on the phone or sharing emails once in a while to compare notes and update data for both of their purposes, and in particular the important work that McChesney spearheads by way of his powerful advocacy organization in the US, Free Press.
And we must remember too that it was others such as the institutionalist Joseph Schumpeter in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (see part I) as well as the radical American sociologist C. Wright Mills, in The Marxists, who argued that the point when it comes to Marx, is that first and foremost we need to know our Marx. They both, each in their own way, praise Marx the sociologist and economist, but condemn him, again for their own reasons, as political theorist and prophet. We must each have our Marx, so to speak, carefully and judiciously selecting the things from him that we think still apply – expansionary and dynamic tendencies of capitalism, pressures toward consolidation, congenital instability and crisis tendencies, power and class distinctions – while rejecting other elements that we don’t believe work: e.g. base/superstructure model of society, ideology, labour theory of value, etc.
So, this is why I speak of political economies of communication. It is meant to (1) prise away this approach from its conflation with a Marxist analysis in many circles, (2) to reflect that there are several schools of thought (e.g. Marxian, liberal, institutional, heterodox, etc.), (3) that rather than the whole of society being subordinated to the universal rule of exchange value (the market), we still see multiple economies (as Aristotle said) where we produce things for ourselves (DIY, self-sufficiency, Wikipedia, YouTube videos), for others and our neighbours (gifts, social economy) and for the market (exchange); (4) that communication, media and information goods are atypical commodities, as Garnham but also the Cultural Industries School never fails to stress, that can only be forcefit into the commodity mold through the force of the state, law and intellectual tyranny of conservative Chicago School economics that works to achieve in the realm of thought (ideology) what cannot be achieved in the ‘real world’: the sublimation of everything to the principles of market exchange.
Whilst I am aware of the power of Chicago School thought and how it has buttressed the imposition of a neoliberal template on many areas of life and the world (and dictatorships through Latin America), we have not yet seen the universalization of the market as the measure of all things, as Marx felt, and as those who still subscribe to his views and speak uniformly of neoliberalism tend to think.
I agree with you about the globalization of capitalism generating increased socio-economic inequality, especially in the heartlands of capitalist modernity (Europe and North America). However, elsewhere – China, India, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, South Africa, etc. – the embrace of capitalism has not just aggravated social economic inequality, but fueled incredible levels of growth and development to the extent that what used to be the periphery now serves as the outposts of new, in many cases, authoritarian, unbridled capitalism states that increasingly look to one another for ‘models of development’ and inspiration rather than even the liberal ideals of capitalist modernity. This can be seen especially with respect to China and how it is viewed now in Africa and Latin America. It was also clear at our conference in Istanbul, where the speakers on the plenary made it absolutely clear that the political masters in that city and Turkey’s political capital of Ankara no longer kowtow to the west and sing from the hymn sheets of liberal democracy that go along with capitalist modernity but reject that in favour of some new mélange of politico-religious-hyper-technologized iron-state view of capitalism.
So, this points to one other thing that I have found problematic with the main lines of critical marxian political economies of communication, and that is the notion that neoliberalism constitutes a uniform horizon in which nations around the world are simply folded into capitalism. I don’t think that there is one capitalism but rather a variety of capitalisms with their own specific characteristics that need to be understood and, once again, studied at two levels: first, in terms of distinctive qualities but also, and second, in relation to the common fundamentals that harmonize things.
Again, it is the interplay between the two dimensions that is key, and it is the uniform preoccupation with the generic characteristics of capitalism that those who invoke notions of neoliberalism lay all their stress that seems like an overly easy short hand for real observations. It also struck me as odd too that whilst neoliberalism was supposedly remaking the world in the singular image of Anglo-American capitalism, the number of regulatory institutions within just our field alone exploded worldwide, from something like 14 in 1990 to 90 a decade later and around 150 or so today. Regulators translate the general ‘logics’ of markets, technology and rule-making in specialized domains into the specific rules and procedures that compose the local political economy to which they are being adapted, as Sassia Sassken puts it. There’s a lot of ‘translation’ work that goes on in this and I think it belies the overly generic notions implied by the rhetoric of neoliberalism.
And besides, just as neoliberalism was seen to be triumphant circa 2000, what happened? A decade of crises, that’s what, starting with the collapse of the dot.com bubble in 2000 and instability ever since, coming to a head once again since the Global Financial Crisis of 2007/8ff. And unlike what David Harvey, the crisis didn’t start on the margins, or get displaced there, but in the core and wreaked its havoc in Europe and the U.S.
So Marx should be back in light of Global Financial Crisis. Indeed, the instabilities of capitalism are visible all around us and sharp jolts and crisis tendencies emerge one day, disappear the next, and reassert themselves the day after that. This is crazy instability, precarity. However, the underlying universalist notion that many interpret as leading to economic, social and cultural homogeneity does not follow. This is another one of the key points that Garnham makes when he likewise advises that we reject notions that the media are bound up with forces of cultural homogenization, cultural imperialism, etc.
I agree, and thing it is important to remember the other side of Marx, who stated that, in the face of the tumultuous, disruptive dynamism of capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air”, by which he meant the break down of traditional societies and ossified ways of life and thinking. The upshot of that, however, is not the superimposition of a higher level of homogenous integration (again, contra what notions of ideology often suggest) but greater levels of sociological differentiation, as sociologists from Tarde, to Parsons, to Habermas, Giddens, Bauman and many others in between have noted. And that is mirrored in the domain of media and ICTs because it seems to me what we are seeing is not total integration and convergence under an ever smaller number of corporate rulers, but simultaneously and paradoxically, both consolidation in some dimensions, generally those with general utility like functions (Google, Facebook, etc.) and where economies of scale (but not scope) are strong, ie. integration between tv and film, but not tv, film and Carriers/Internet, to wit the misfortunes/calamities of AOL Time Warner, News Corp/MySpace, Vivendi Universal, etc. (with exception of recent Comcast NBC-Universal merger). Garnham in his school marmy way is admonishing us to understand this reality and seems to believe that until we reject our dogmatic ways, we won’t even be able to see things clearly, let alone understand them. I have some sympathy but . . . .
Finally, I do not agree with you that alienation is a unique pathology of capitalism. Of course, it was the task of Critical Theory, in particular Eric Fromm and Herbert Marcuse to lay out a theory of alienation combining Freud with Marx to understand alienation under capitalism. That bore some fruit, but try raising it with most feminists today. It ain’t gonna go anywhere, as far as I know. The bottom line on this for me is that alienation is not a capitalist problem, but an existential one. Here, Marx does not offer much of value. We must read our Sorensen Kieregaard, J. P. Satre, Lu Xun, and Albert Camus for insights on that.
That, in my view, is not an indictment of Marx, but rather a marker of the scope and limits of his thoughts. I hope that the above ideas clearly indicate that I am no turn-coat enemy of Marx and some of the many important thinkers who have translated his ideas into central pillars in the critical marxian approach to the political economy of media and communication. I continue to be interested in this work and draw on it often and extensively, while still hoping that I may make some modest contributions to it. However, I do not believe that such an approach holds the magic key to understanding our times, and in fact believe that adhering too closely to a marxian view of political economy will only impoverish us.
Well, Christian, this has really gotten out of hand. It’s dragged up a whole ton of ideas that I’ve been thinking about for a long time now. There’s obviously much more to say, but I think I’ll leave it here for now and await your response. I’d say that we wrap it up after that, perhaps returning some time in the future to pick up where we leave off.
Cheers and all the best, Dwayne
Critical Media and Communication Studies Today: A Conversation between Dwayne Winseck and Christian Fuchs. Part 3
Dwayne Winseck: Christian,
Fascinating response to our ongoing riposte here. Must say I enjoy it very much, and am learning a lot too.
I agree that we are on the same page on a lot of things. Thanks also for helping me recall some things about Marcuse by referring to his links to Freud’s notion of pleasure. I have not read this material for some time and you’ve inspired me to jump back into it. Same with respect to the Italian Autonomist Marxists, and I think I’m in agreement here with you about how that school turns every act of the subject into a potentially revolutionary one. Perhaps that’s pleasing to the ‘digerati’ and young guys hanging out around their Internet connections all the time, but it too easily celebrates ‘net culture’ and is not the basis for anything politically effective.
I’m fascinated too by your reference to Lenin and the idea of banks fulfilling central public functions. This is not a Leninist idea, as you well know, but rather a principle of modern banking from the creation of the Bank of England (founded in 1694 but only nationalized in 1946) and an absolute mainstay in John Maynard Keynes ideas. Of course, it is also anathema to ultra conservative economists. Do you have the Lenin source on this point ready-to-hand? Anyway, this broad ‘infrastructural background concept of public goods’ works well with understanding the idea that search engines (Google), Social Network Companies (Facebook), ISPs, etc. provide no small range of generalized public utility like functions.
Now here’s where the differences between us, I think, start to emerge. You make a long list of things that need to be combined to serve as an encompassing approach for all those on the left of communication and media studies. I’m not sure that can be accomplished, nor am I confident that striving to achieve such a thing is either viable or desirable. We must be able to talk but not necessarily expect that we’re going to agree, and not just among those who self-identify with the left but anyone who has a voice in the things that we are talking about.
In the list of substantive areas that you suggest we should study, I would put ideology either off the list or much further down the list to the point that it plays a bit role in things. Instead, I would focus on ‘users’, what they do, say, think, without recourse to ideology and it’s typical functionalist ‘glue like’ notions. Ideology is dead, like Marcuse said.
That’s maybe too strong, but just to get the point out crisply. Have you seen Nicholas Garnham’s new piece in the book by Wasko, Murdock, Sousa (eds): Handbook on the Political Economy of Communication? I’m only half way done, but he is scathing about the orthodoxy of what passes as PEC, bitingly saying that adherents have “forgotten nothing, and learnt nothing”. The way he puts his case is way too strong, but throughout the paper he goes through a list of grievances that I have some sympathy for:
(1) that Marxian analysis are disconnected from reality and empirical analysis;
(2) that a fundamental aspect of this reality is the communication, information and cultural goods are immaterial and thus not like ‘normal commodities’ and that this has enormous implications for how markets are structured and work, the hits and miss character of media economies, media labour, policy, etc.;
(3) that Marxian ideology and political projects are trumped up as political economic analysis, when they are not, and moreover likely to be all the more ineffectual because of their disconnection from an intimate understanding of the telecom-media-Internet industries that they are purportedly analyzing;
(4) that dead notions — ideology, cultural imperialism, cultural homogenization, etc. – should be given up and given a decent funeral;
(5) that Marxist political economy has to recognize that it is far from the only game in town and open itself up to more open-ended discussions with other schools of thought.
The critique of PEC that Garnham offers is no holds barred. I would part way with him in tone, and subsequently on some of the substantive claims that he makes.
Here’s an even bigger issue: Capitalism. I’m all for many of the things that you put on the research agenda, so please don’t get me wrong, but I worry that focusing on such a large whole, and to putting one’s political priorities at the front end of the process of inquiry risks obscuring too much empirical detail. I think Zygmunt Bauman and Luc Botanski represent my position well when they critique the idea that sociology today can take the ‘whole’ as its starting point. The fragmentation of societies, social institutions, individual life trajectories/biographies, etc. is key to understanding the complexity and instability that not only defines capitalism but the texture, fabric, structure and feel of our everyday lives.
This last point is way to big to pursue any further here for now. Besides, I have to go wash the car and play hockey. If you’re interested, perhaps we might think about posting these interchanges as a ‘dialogue’ on our respective blogs. What do you think?
Christian Fuchs: Dear Dwayne,
Thank you for the discussion, I enjoy it very much. I think it is a good idea to turn it into a blog exchange. We can then occasionally continue the discussion if we find time.
I’ve attached my paper here, A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy of Google; it should be online at Fast Capitalism’s site soon. Any comments are very welcome.
The question, which critical approaches and theories we employ or combine, is also a question about our own work because we are influenced by certain traditions, thinkers, approaches and draw on them for creating new critical knowledge. It is also mainly about the question, which topics we find worth studying and how we study them. I do think that we need to bring together the critical analysis of capital accumulation (including the role of advertising), ideology, audiences/users and alternatives/struggles when we study media
communication critically. I have no reasons to privilege one of these dimensions of study, why should one? They are all important.
I do not see your point, why you find studying ideology least important. You were quite critical of Dallas Smythe in one of your previous contributions in our conversation, saying that he is too economic reductionistic (an argument, with which I disagree because I think this thoughts and works were much more manifold than many see/say today), but both Smythe and Garnham have argued that ideology critique (as mainly advanced by the Frankfurt School within Marxism) is unnecessary, unimportant, idealistic, etc. This is a topic that not only concerns capital as base of capitalism, because ideologies are sturdily anchored in the capitalist economy, but also because they concern the economy’s and the political system’s interaction with culture and the world of ideas. So ideology is a crucial topic of analysis for avoiding crude economic reductionism.
By saying that ideology critique has least importance, you now sound more like Dallas Smythe and the economism you say you are so weary of. Why should ideology be less important than capital accumulation when we study the media? I do not agree and am curious what arguments you have in this respect. Marcuse, by the way, did not say that ideology is dead. People like Daniel Bell were talking about the “end of ideology” and Marcuse countered that late capitalism in the 1960s and 1970s was a hyper-ideological age.
Let’s take a simple contemporary example: what is now called “social media” by some. After the dot.com crisis in 2000, there was a need for establishing new capital accumulation strategies for the capitalist Internet economy. So the discourse on “social media” became all about new capital accumulation models for the Internet economy. At the same time, investors were reluctant to invest finance capital after the crisis as venture capital into digital media companies. Nobody knew if the users were interested in microblogs, social networking sites, etc.
The rise of social media as new capital accumulation model was accompanied by a social media ideology: that social media are new (“web 2.0”), pose new opportunities for participation, will bring about an “economic democracy”, enables new forms of political struggle (“Twitter revolution”), etc. The rise of new media once more was accompanied by a techno-deterministic techno-optimistic ideology. This ideology was necessary for convincing investors and users to support the social media capital accumulation model. The political economy of surplus value generation on social media and ideology have heavily interacted here in order to enable the rise of “social media”. So why should ideology here be rather unimportant? It is just as crucial as surplus value generation. The ideology of techno-determinism and techno-optimism were in this case (as in other cases of the introduction of new technologies) mainly spread by management gurus, uncritical academics and new media company managers. Isn’t it the task of critical academics to understand and criticize this ideology just like to understand and criticize media capital accumulation models?
You say one should be critical of focusing on society as a whole. But doing so is not lacking complexity, it is based on the insight that it is possible to understand, conceptualize, analyze, criticize and transform the societal totality and to see how class interacts in this whole with other forms and lines of stratification, i.e. how exploitation interacts with domination and what role the class antagonism and non-class antagonisms play. Of course this is complex, it is necessarily complex, the problem today is that the culturalist turn has resulted in simplistic/cultural reductionistic analyses that neglect class and the economy. Why analyzing the totality is important is also the prospect of changing the whole and replacing capitalism by democracy and equality. What are the alternatives to that? Are we not again again in the situation of facing the potential futures of socialism or barbarism(s)?
I have read Nicholas Garnham’s contribution in the Handbook of Political Economy of Communication. Here are three observations from my reading:
* (1) Garnham suggests using the term “Political Economy of Information” instead of “Political Economy of Media/Communication/Culture”. I think that information-communication-culture-media are so interlinked, that it is really just a question of choice, which name we employ.
* (2) Garnham says that Political Economy is often a gestural, self-satisfied, paranoid radical Marxism and is often based on a crude and romantic Marxist rejection of the market. He also speaks about the alienated nature of all human relations and alienation as aspect of human species-being. I could not disagree more. Critical Media and Communication Studies is not strongly shaped by Marxism today because the engagement with Marx has had an institutional setback in the past three decades due to the rise of neoliberalism, postmodernism and culturalism. At the same time, socio-economic inequality and the crisis-proneness of capitalism intensified, culminating in the 2008ff crisis, which is the reason why the interest in Marx’s thought is coming back. So I would say that Critical Media and Communication Studies is not Marxist enough and should become more Marxist, the historical opportunity and analytical necessity (the objective necessity of the need of analyzing class, capitalism, exploitation and crisis now) is here now.
* (3) I found it surprising, given this context, that Garnham to a certain extent seems to be turning away from Marxist analysis. Many of his passages are quite unclear, so more clarifications were indeed needed by him on these points. When he says that alienation is part of the nature of humans and society, then he either uses a non-Marxist concept of alienation (he gives no definition) or he makes a fetishistic argument that naturalizes class relations. For Marx, alienation is at the heart of class relations, not only for the young Marx, but the very same notion can be found in the works of the older Marx (the notion of “double-free wage labour” in “Capital”). And why is it crude and romantic when Marxists reject the market? Exchange value is the heart of each market, and Marx was clear on the necessity to sublate exchange value economies in order to create a just society. Everywhere we find exchange value, we find inequality. Has Garnham given up the basic assumptions of Marxist theory? And if so, what are the alternatives for him today?
These are my thoughts for today.
Part 4 to follow shortly.
Critical Media and Communication Studies Today: A Conversation between Dwayne Winseck and Christian Fuchs. Part 2
Dwayne Winseck: Hi Christian (link to mirror post at Christian’s blog),
If one thinks of Google as a general public utility (or performing such public utility like functions in search, link, index, creating the navigable web), although of course as a private company, private in the sense that it is the extension of a few men (Brin, Page, Schmidt, through their controlling ownership stake) and private venture capital markets, then Google produces a vast range of “public goods” — information itself is a public good, so that it would do so is not surprising. This is what I always appreciated about heterodox and critical Marxian political economies of communication: namely, that they did not only look at commodities and exchange within markets, but those things in life – public goods, common sense, gifts, free time, the sociality of everyday life – that give value to what it means to be human.
Vaidhyanathan’s Googlization of Everything, by and large, only gives a negative critique of Google. Moreover, the argument is mostly rhetorical rather than empirically-based and well theorized, i.e. it often appears to be more like random thoughts strung together over the course of a year about Google than a systematic critique of the political economy of Google. He hardly discusses what Google generates in terms of public goods, under private control of course, although does lay out the grand ‘public goods’ proposal in the last chapter.
I heard the really smart American critical legal scholar Pamela Samuelson speak about Google Book Settlement Agreement (BSA) last year (and a podcast of her views here). She raved about the audacity of the project and what it meant in terms of getting more books in print, faster, more easily accessible and affordable than ever at a time when the public sector – universities in particular, especially as the situation in the UK shows – is in crisis, being pared back and forced to tighten the purse in light of the evaporation of public funds on account of the Global Financial Crisis, 2007/8ff. The one big problem in all this is that Google’s Book Settlement Agreement essentially let Google rewrite the terms of trade and copyright law for the US in the digital media age. Quite a coup if you could get it, eh? Funny thing is that, in this case what was good for Google was in fact good for us, if we measured things just in terms of being able to deliver the goods and pay no heed to the consequences for the rule of law. This would be technocracy, and it is this that Siva rightfully and powerful draws out for critique. Sure, it delivers the goods, but does democracy and rule of law by citizens take a beating as a result?
While these elements are core to Vaidhyanathan’s discourse on Google, I can’t help but feel that it all doesn’t stack up as well as it should. The economic and legal treatment is not up to the standards set by his earlier work.
So, back to the main point regarding critical theory, marxian political economy, and then a few more words about Smythe. I like Marcuse because I think he always demonstrated the dialectic between domination and liberation. The ultimate triumph of instrumental reason (capital, calculability, hierarchy, organization, control) in Marcuse’s work is always kept at bay by hopes for pleasure, eros, love, play, aesthetic appreciation, etc. Peter and Fredrik’s papers remind me of this sensibility (see Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization). Their use of the Italian autonomist Marxist stuff impressed me alot, although I don’t know enough about this perspective as I probably should.
I’m a big fan of Smythe, Smythe, as I said yesterday. I called him at home one day in 1988, and while he was outside washing the car he took my call and we talked about the allocation of spectrum and orbital slots for satellites as part of my master’s thesis for over an hour. He was an economist, albeit a heterodox one, maybe even a marxian one and his insistence on thinking about the communication and media as industries was an important injunction. So too was his and Schiller’s insistence that these industries are part of the C3I assemblage, or the Military Information Media Entertainment (MIME) complex as some people now refer to it (see der Derian and here).
However, I also think his ideas about dependency theory, nation, communication policy, China, consciousness and many other things are very problematic. The Smythe and Schiller view of communication and consciousness is classic, one-sided Marxism: “those who own the means of production also own the means of mental production”. Well, yes, and no. His dim view of the capacity of the audience commodity to do much meaningful with either media or their lives was miserable, and stupor inducing.
One of the real advances of the Frankfurt School three or four decades before them was to surpass this ham-fisted notion of ideology and the control of consciousness. The fact that Smythe, Schiller and many other critical marxian political economy types still make it the centrepiece of their analysis (or at least their tacit assumptions) is an embarrassment to the standards of what we need to know, and indeed what many other fields do know about learning, social life, being, and mind.
Focusing on what people do with technologies, not to celebrate, but to study the dialectic between exploitation and joy is more compelling to me than focusing on consciousness and ideology. I think it is also implicit in the dialectic that Marcuse sets up between instrumental reason and pleasure, etc.
And you, what do you think?
Thanks and cheers, Dwayne
Christian Fuchs: Hello Dwayne. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
I can subscribe to a lot of what you are saying. My personal thought is probably most influenced by Hegel, Marx and Marcuse. What I think we need, and what I have argued in detail in my recent book Foundations of Critical Media and Information Studies, is a synthesis of everything that is on the “left” side of the spectrum in Media and Communication Studies. This entails a synthesis of the critique of media as:
a) capital accumulation organizations,
b) advertising institutions,
c) ideology producers and disseminators, and a connection to
d) alternative media, their potentials and limits + e) political struggles and their relations to the media + f) media and their use in the context of domination and liberation.
I think that’s a broad spectrum. I try to set this out in a more systematic scheme in chapters 3+4 of “Foundations of Critical Media and Information Studies”.
Most critical media scholars focus just on one dimension. I think we need a combination of many. That being said, I think we need a focus on the radical critique of capitalism, and thereby an inspiration by Marx. And I do think that Cultural Studies after Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson (who knew Marx very well), starting with Stuart Hall, has ever more given up the critique of capitalism. Therefore I would make early Cultural Studies part of those approaches I want to bring together, but not much from contemporary Cultural Studies (which is too far away from a critique of capitalism). If one wants to focus on pleasure+media, then I think Marcuse’s interpretation of Freud’s
pleasure principle is a good place to start and one can think about how this relates to the media. This is especially important for discussions about the relation of pleasure/play and labour (digital play labour/playbour) that we find today in relation to discussions about digital labour (for an application of Marcuse’s pleasure principle for analyzing Facebook playbour, see a recent paper by me here). Marcuse’s principle of pleasure was a radical concept opposed to capitalism. In contrast, in much celebratory Cultural Studies, there is a simplistic notion of pleasure related to the concept of the active, creative audience.
So one has to be careful not to celebrate commodity culture. The Autonomist Marxist tradition is really interesting, I try also to draw on it, but one has to criticize their fetishization of the multitude. They see struggles automatically emerging everywhere. It is a kind of determinism of the subject. Nonetheless the class concept of Hardt and Negri goes in the right direction can help us to conceptualize media+class (see a book I wrote together with a colleague about Negri’s philosophy here).
It is crucial to theorize how knowledge labour relates to class. Almost all approaches are failures, most of them either conceive knowledge work as new dominant class or as new proletariat. The positive aspect about Italian Autonomist Marxist theory is that it allows to us to conceive of non-wage labour (like unemployment, house work, use of corporate Internet platforms, etc) as a form of exploitation and as part of class antagonism. But Italian Autonomist Marxist theory is like Cultural Studies to a certain extent. That is, it can be a deterministic and reductionist approach, it fetishizes the subject, sees the multitude as always and automatically revolting, it generalizes Italian experiences of struggles incorrectly to the whole world, it completely ignores ideology (there is no space of ideology critique in this theory).
The ignorance of ideology and ideology critique partly stems from the non-engagement with Hegel because there is no space for the concept of the dialectic of essence and existence in Autonomist Marxism. At the same time, to a certain extent Hardt and Negri are more Hegelian than they think they are (see chapter 8 in my book “Foundations of Critical Media and Information Studies”).
I do think that ideology critique, critique of capital accumulation models, media concentration, alternative media studies, social movement media studies, critical theory/philosophy of the media, etc has to be combined and guided by Marxist theory. I feel that most single critical approaches (like Smythe, Frankfurt School, alternative media theory, Garnham, etc) are not encompassing enough and that we now need a new critical synthesis. That’s one of my basic tasks . . . .
I fully agree that Google produces a lot of things that are nearly public. It is like when Lenin spoke about the central banks that are private, but assume quasi-public status. The thing one needs to do is to expropriate Google and use it is a good foundation for a public Internet. In a paper forthcoming in Fast Capitalism (see the full paper here), I try to grasp the dialectic of Google in terms of a contradiction between networked productive forces and class relations of media production.
Many popular science accounts of Google are celebratory, whereas a lot of social science analyses point out the dangers of the company. One should go beyond one-sided assessments of Google and think dialectically: Google is at the same time the best and the worst that has ever happened on the Internet. Google is evil like the figure of Satan and good like the figure of God. It is the dialectical Good Evil.
Google is part of the best Internet practices because it services can enhance and support the everyday life of humans. It can help us to find and organize information, to access public information, to communicate and co-operate with others. Google has the potential to greatly advance the cognition, communication and co-operation capabilities of humans in society. It is a manifestation of the productive and socializing forces of the Internet.
The problem is not the technologies provided by Google, but the capitalist relations of production, in which these technologies are organized. The problem is that to provide these services Google necessarily has to exploit users and to engage in the surveillance and commodification of user-oriented data. This is the foundation – the internal core in its commodity form, if you will – upon which Google rests. Marx spoke in this context of the antagonism of the productive forces and the relations of production. Google is a prototypical example for the antagonisms between networked productive forces and capitalist relations of production of the information economy. Google has created the real conditions of its own transcendance. It is a mistake to argue that Google should be dissolved or to say that alternatives to Google are needed or to say that its services are a danger to humanity. Rather, Google would loose its antagonistic character if it were expropriated and transformed into a public, non-profit, non-commercial organization that serves the common good.
I think there is indeed a dialectic of exploitation and joy today, but an unequal one, in which joy becomes the new principle of exploitation (play labour, playbour). So joy tends to become subsumed under capital accumulation as new management strategy and it becomes more difficult to resist. Certainly not impossible, but joy and play are antagonistically entangled into capital accumulation. My personal take is that political movements are the only way for making society more democratic and that struggles for democratic media must be connected to larger struggles in society that struggle against the commodification of the commons. At the same time, right-wing extremism is on the rise as effect of the crisis (especially in Europe, see Norway etc now).
So much for today.
Best wishes, Christian
For Part 3, follow the link here.